Keeping it reel with documentaries

Film festival entertains with true and local stories, premieres

Don M. Burrows

Forget reality TV. City Pages hosts its annual “Get Real” documentary film festival, and a sampling of its selection lives up to the promise of genuine stories about authentic people – or as close to it as we’re likely to find these days.

The projector flips on Friday with two anti-war films, “Why We Fight” and “Sir! No Sir!” Throughout the week, the festival will show 30 films – including 19 premieres. The list contains a couple of local directors’ works, like Billy Golfus’ “When Billy Broke His Head Ö and Other Tales of Wonder,” which will be presented with a guest appearance by the filmmaker.

The series is a lifesaver for those discouraged by all the manufactured reality programming as of late. While documentaries never claimed to give an unadulterated look into real life, many films in the series take us up close with people as they struggle through our common experiences in life.

‘The Real Dirt on Farmer John’

One superb example of this comes in a new film by Taggart Siegel about a farmer in rural Illinois and his personal journey from country boy to hippie to drifter and eventually organic farmer.

“The Real Dirt on Farmer John” was filmed over several years and chronicles John Peterson’s life from his childhood into his teen years. It never shies away from the rumor mongering of his closed-minded neighbors who accuse him of everything from satanism to child sacrifice.

Thanks to its film footage spanning so many years, we heartbreakingly witness John’s close relationship with his mother and his eventual visitation to her deathbed, presented so starkly it will leave few dry eyes. His story ends triumphantly after a series of struggles and failures – a true portrait of the human experience.

‘The Phantom of the Operator’

Also appropriate to the theme of the film fest is Caroline Martel’s “The Phantom of the Operator.” Martel culled hundreds of corporate film reels from Bell Telephone’s reign through the 20th century to create a profile.

This profile is not of a single person but of a persona fashioned by the telecommunications empire: the “voice with a smile.” We’re taken from the turn of the 20th century well into the future as the film chronicles the first women hired to be telephone operators.

Here we are challenged to define reality in a technological age. On the one hand, “Phantom of the Operator” shows how the company contrived the “attractive operator” image and used it in its public relations machine. Strings of women are shown monolithically conforming to a company ideal, exercising in a retreat camp in one company reel and undergoing physical exams in another.

This is hardly reality, but the film then makes us ponder if it was more real than what replaced it. We’re shown the advent of the dial telephone as customers were instructed that the new dial tone they heard was replacing the operator’s familiar “number please.” And we’re taken to the introduction of the touchtone phone with its data entry capabilities that virtually eliminates any need for human interaction.

This humanity is perhaps central to most of these films. Whether pure reality or not, at the very least the festival promises tangible, human nonfiction. It’s a refreshing break from the rest of the entertainment industry.